HOOVER, Ala. – Poor Nick Saban. The sport of football keeps conspiring against him.
You remember when the Alabama coach was dismayed by the accelerating pace of play brought on by no-huddle offenses? His objections were all about player safety, of course, and had nothing to do with Southeastern Conference Western Division opponents like Auburn and Texas A&M bringing an uncomfortable tempo into Saban's backyard.
Now, it's that meddlesome National Football League and its problematic draft schedule. A coach who sells the NFL to recruits like nobody else seems to think the league's disclosure of draft information to his players hurt Alabama's focus and preparation for the College Football Playoff semifinal last season.
Players requesting draft feedback from the NFL have to declare by Dec. 15. Saban said here Tuesday that the feedback was received around Christmas. The playoff game against Ohio State was played Jan. 1, with the Crimson Tide losing in a sizable upset.
"Our team chemistry from the SEC championship game to the playoff game was affected by something," Saban said. "... We had six guys in this situation this past year and 11 the year before. So we're trying to get ready for a game, and all of a sudden a guy finds out he's a first-round draft pick or a guy that thought he was a first-round draft pick finds out he's not a first-round draft pick, and we're trying to get ready to play a playoff game. I think it would be better not to submit that information to a player until he was finished competing in college."
We'll pause for a moment here while America wipes its sympathy tears for poor Alabama and poor Nick. Perhaps we should set up a hankie stand in Tuscaloosa.
So now we know: the Tide lost to Ohio State because of draft info. Not because 'Bama underperformed, underprepared or was flat whipped.
Not because Ezekiel Elliott made the 'Bama defense look heavy-legged and slow while slashing them for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Not because a former third-string quarterback making his second career start threw for 243 yards. Not because Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin kept dialing up passes when he should have been calling runs.
And clearly not because Urban Meyer outcoached Nick Saban.
By the way, Ohio State had a player on its team die the week of the Big Ten championship game. That's a slightly bigger issue to deal with than draft status.
If Saban is truly concerned about the pernicious effect of having players preoccupied with the draft, he might tone down the NFL Lite nature of his program. Whoops, I mean his organization, the NFL-based term he uses. You look at a picture like this, from the Alabama football facility, and wonder why players are fixated on going pro.
I will actually support Saban's argument about moving back the draft declaration deadline – for an event that now takes place in May, a Dec. 15 deadline makes little sense. Even with coaches wanting to know where they stand in recruiting with who may or may not be leaving school early, there is some wiggle room to extend the process.
"I think a week, 10 days would be beneficial," Saban said. "And I think a rule that says you don't get information to players on draft status until after they've completed their college competition would be beneficial."
Fine. But what came out of Saban's mouth Tuesday sounded more like another case of excuse-making for a hugely disappointing performance.
The offenses are too fast and unsafe? Excuse.
The team wasn't motivated to play Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl after the lightning-strike loss to Auburn? Excuse.
The draft doomed us against Ohio State? Excuse.
Of all coaches who should have no excuses, it's the $7 million man, Nick Saban. He's got every advantage imaginable – location, facilities, staff, administrative support, a fan base that would build a pyramid by hand if he demanded it. And for a long time he needed no excuses – Saban won at a legendary rate, piling up national championships in 2009, '11 and '12 to go along with the one he won at LSU in 2003.
But the past couple of years have not ended well by the sky-high standards Saban himself created. The losses to Auburn and Oklahoma two seasons ago and Ohio State last season came with the Tide favored by a minimum of eight points in each, and they showcased some startling cracks in Saban's famed defensive foundation.
Auburn scored 34 on 'Bama in 2013. Oklahoma scored 45. Ohio State scored 42 last season. And even in victory in the Iron Bowl, Alabama gave up 44 to the Tigers.
That should be the area of concern going forward. America's best defensive coach hasn't been able to stop quality opponents in big, late-season games. Whether it's scheme or personnel or conditioning, the Crimson Tide has had significant slippage in an area that traditionally under Saban was its greatest strength.
Fix the real problems, Nick. Stop making excuses about ancillary issues. Nobody is buying them, and nobody is feeling sorry for Alabama.
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